Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

Garda Resources

Martin Kenny


1. Deputy Martin Kenny asked the Minister for Justice when funding will be made available to An Garda Síochána to set up regional cybercrime units that have been planned since 2016; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [23204/20]

Will the Minister for Justice tell us when funding will be made available to the Garda Síochána to set up the regional cybercrime units that have been planned since 2016? Will she make a statement on the matter and bring clarity to this issue?

At the outset, it is important to emphasise that the Garda Commissioner and his team are responsible for the operation and management of An Garda Síochána and the distribution of resources within that organisation. As Minister for Justice, it is important that I work with the Garda Commissioner and ensure that he can fulfil what it is he sets out to do. This includes the establishment of new units and structures. As Minister, however, I have no direct role in these matters.

I refer specifically to the Garda national cybercrime bureau, GNCB, which is involved in tackling cyber-enabled crimes in collaboration with other Garda units such as the Garda national economic crime bureau, GNECB. The GNCB is part of the special crime operations section of An Garda Síochána and its members undergo intensive training in the area of forensic computing and cybercrime investigations. The bureau's remit also includes providing information on current cybercrime trends and online crime prevention advice, while at the same time operating as the Garda cybercrime and computer forensics liaison with partners including academic institutions, Europol, Interpol, the FBI and other law enforcement agencies.

It is important to note while we are moving to set up these particular units that every Garda district at the moment has a number of personnel trained in the use of digital forensic toolsets for the examination of any physical device seized or surrendered during the course of such investigations. However, when required, assistance will be provided to members of the Garda Síochána during the course of an investigation by the cybercrime bureau which has examiners trained in the use of forensic examination software, computer forensics and fundamentals up to master's degree level, in addition to receiving peer reviewed practical training. This is already underway but, obviously, much more was planned.

With regard to the roll-out of the new regional cybercrime units, I am satisfied that An Garda Síochána has the necessary funding to set up these units. I confirm that in line with the normal sanctioning process that must take place, in particular, when we are talking about any ICT investment, whether it is for public or private service, there must be a particular process it goes through. There have been extensive consultations between my Department and An Garda Síochána on this matter. I understand the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform is currently considering the sanction request for the procurement of a managed service to facilitate the roll-out of the new regional cybercrime units and I expect a decision in the near future.

The issue here is that the gardaí and the Commissioner have made it clear they need these units now. There has been criticism for many years through the Courts Service and indeed many judges have criticised the huge delays and shortage of resources and staff in regard to this. This is really at the core of this. The main issue at stake here is child sex abuse imagery and how that can be tackled, which is a growing problem not just in Ireland, but across the world. It is something most people hope that we would be up to speed on as a modern economy and society. Online fraud, child exploitation and grooming, sexual abuse and rape must all be dealt with by having proper systems in place.

I understand the Garda Commissioner, Mr. Drew Harris, looked for the funding in 2016, which I believe is when it was first mooted to be required. The funding was applied for and was actually first sought from the Minister's Department in March 2019. A good article appeared in the Irish Examiner regarding this which stated the digital Government oversight unit received a business case from the Department of Justice and Equality in August 2020. What happened in those 15 months? Why could there not have been any movement on this?

I will outline here that funding is not an issue. I am satisfied the Commissioner will and does have the funding he needs. However, when one is rolling out any type of arrangements for digital or ICT-related expenditure, whether it is within the public or civil service, and An Garda Síochána obviously falls within that, a particular process must be undergone with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to approve the application of this.

In this specific case, the sanction required was to proceed with the procurement of a managed service solution for the Garda national cybercrime bureau and, again, I confirm my Department has engaged with An Garda Síochána to satisfy itself on a number of matters. The business case was subsequently forwarded to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform for the final sanctions. I am satisfied the funding is available and will be there for the progression of this. There is, however, a particular process that must be gone through, in particular on the issues Deputy Kenny mentioned around child pornography and the fact we have seen a massive increase in online crime throughout Covid-19, for obvious reasons. Many people are at home and on their computers but, particularly, older people perhaps are using their computers where they have not before. I am aware of this issue and my challenge now is to move it on as quickly as possible.

We are on the same page. However, I do not understand, and what the public does not understand when it looks on, is that when An Garda Síochána or any other body needs money for something vital and applies for it, that can take years to be processed. The Minister said, of course, that all kinds of systems must be gone through and there must be due diligence. We know that. It would be useful, however, if the Minister could outline the timescale around when An Garda Síochána applies to the Department for funding for a particular project like this. How long can it expect to wait before it receives sanction and gets the funding to provide the service? Is the Minister talking about three years or three months? It would be much more appropriate if it was three months in the context of what we need to get done here because this is a serious issue. The Commissioner outlined it in his recent reports to the policing authority. It is something that has been through the courts for years now.

They are now complaining they cannot get the level of service they require in all this. Yet we find that when an application that makes common sense and that everyone agrees with goes to the Department, it is kicked from one party to the other over and back and nothing happens for years. It is no longer acceptable. It would be useful if the Minister, as a new Minister, put something in place to speed this up.

I understand the frustration and I cannot give the Deputy an exact timeline as to when exactly a Department or An Garda Síochána seeking initial funding for a project of this scale will receive approval. However, all ICT expenditure must meet particular criteria and a specific approval process must be followed. I can look at that approval process and see if it is unduly long or challenging, but a number of areas need to be looked at. This project will cost €13.8 million which is not small money. At the same time, it will be extremely valuable for the many areas the Deputy and I have both mentioned, considering the increase in cybercrime in recent weeks.

Modernising and developing our ICT infrastructure, not just within An Garda Síochána but also within the Department, the visa processing system and the courts system, is an absolute priority for me. If there are delays through this process or otherwise, I will certainly look at the issue. I am confident that this will be progressed as quickly as possible.

Garda Reform

Mick Barry


2. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Minister for Justice if she will reverse the decision to transfer the powers to hire and promote gardaí from the Policing Authority to the Garda Commissioner in view of the recommendation from the Smithwick tribunal to remove this power from the Commissioner given its potential to discourage whistleblowing; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [23203/20]

By agreement, Question No. 2 is being taken by Deputy Paul Murphy.

Are last week's media reports accurate in suggesting the Government is seriously planning to take the power to hire and promote senior gardaí from the Policing Authority, which was a reform designed to protect whistleblowers in particular, and give that power back to the Garda Commissioner? In light of all the scandals, can that really be the Government's plan?

The question makes reference to the Smithwick tribunal. However, the report of the Smithwick tribunal of inquiry makes no recommendation on the recruitment or promotion of members of An Garda Síochána. I believe the article in The Irish Times may have mentioned that.

The Deputy is referring to the recommendations of the report of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland on the governance of An Garda Síochána. The Government is committed to rapidly implementing the commission's report and in that context to introduce the policing and community safety Bill. Work on the development of the general scheme of this Bill is at an advanced stage in my Department. Following consultations with the Garda Commissioner and the oversight bodies, including the Policing Authority and the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, GSOC, which are under way at present on the detail of the proposals, I hope to bring the matter before Cabinet in the near future. I hope the Deputy will appreciate that this consultative process is under way and the question of approval or definitively stating whether something will happen will be a matter for the Government in the normal way.

It may be helpful to set out the background and the rationale to the proposals that are currently the subject of consultation and covered in the Deputy's question. As the Deputy will recall, the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland, chaired by Kathleen O’Toole and comprising a group of national and international experts drawn from diverse backgrounds, was established by the previous Government to undertake a fundamental examination of all aspects of policing, including all functions undertaken by An Garda Síochána and the bodies that have a role in providing oversight - the Policing Authority, the Garda Síochána Inspectorate, the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, my Department and the Government. The commission's 2018 report followed wide-ranging consultations and intensive deliberations. All the recommendations were accepted by Government, including the recommendations the Deputy mentioned. These have been included the four-year plan, A Policing Service for our Future (2019-2022), to support its implementation and under which, I am pleased to say, much has been achieved.

The policing and community safety Bill is an important element of that plan. It will, as I have said, provide a new coherent governance and oversight framework for policing. Essentially it is proposed that the inspectorate and the Policing Authority will merge into one new body. GSOC will remain but have a change of name. There will be an oversight board.

I think that means the answer is "Yes", but I ask for confirmation. Is The Irish Times accurate in stating that the Garda Commissioner would regain power to make appointments and promotions in the force under plans agreed by the coalition? That is a very serious decision that has significant implications. The report of the Smithwick tribunal found that loyalty is prized over honesty within the Garda Síochána. That is one of the reasons that in 2017, as a reform to protect whistleblowers such as Maurice McCabe, the decision to hire and promote senior gardaí was taken out of the hands of the Garda Commissioner and given to the Policing Authority. I believe it is an insufficient reform but one that goes in the right direction. Is it accurate that the Government is planning to give that power back to the Garda Commissioner? Is that because the Minister is not concerned about the treatment of whistleblowers? Does she not think whistleblowers will be discriminated against within the force by a future Garda Commissioner in the event that they are seen as being disloyal to their colleagues because they are blowing the whistle?

The Deputy asked two questions. On whistleblowers, the Protective Disclosures Act, introduced in 2014 by former colleagues of mine, provides a very clear statutory framework within which workers can raise concerns over potential wrongdoings in the workplace that come to their attention. They can do this in the full knowledge that they can avail of significant employment and other protections if they are penalised by their employer or suffer any detriment from making such disclosures. This will not change with the potential changes to the structures within An Garda Síochána. Serving or former members of An Garda Síochána may continue to communicate their concerns through making a disclosure to the Garda Commissioner or, if they do not want to do that through the Garda Commissioner or their employer, they can continue to make that complaint through GSOC, which is the statutory independent body for such investigations, or to me, as Minister for Justice and Equality, or any subsequent Minister for Justice and Equality.

The Act also requires that every public body shall establish and maintain procedures for the making of protected disclosures by workers who are or were employed by the public body for dealing with such disclosures. Those mechanisms and protections will remain in place after the changing of the structures here. I may deal with the board in my next answer. It will not change that for whistleblowers.

If the Government gets away with this, in future whistleblowers or perceived whistleblowers may be discriminated against in terms of promotion by a Garda Commissioner. The power was taken out of the hands of the Garda Commissioner and given to the Policing Authority for a very good reason. We all saw the disgraceful treatment of Maurice McCabe and others. It is an astounding counter-reform to recentralise power in the hands of the Garda Commissioner given the chilling effect that can have within the ranks. How much discussion was this subject to within the Government? Is the Green Party on board with the plan to give the power back the Garda Commissioner to allow discrimination in that sense against whistleblowers in the force? This is an explosive and outrageous decision by the Government and should be the subject of a significant public debate. Rather than just implementing recommendations, the Government is recentralising powers in the hands of the Garda Commissioner which will have very negative effects for whistleblowers in the future.

This matter has been the subject of some debate and discussion among all the agencies. It will go through the normal processes and procedures in the Dáil and there will be a chance to debate it. We are not talking about giving power to one person alone. There is a very clear oversight structure here. The role of the board will be to better support and manage An Garda Síochána. In addition to providing support, it will also be able to constructively challenge the Garda Commissioner who will be accountable for his performance and that of his team. He works with the board, which in turn will be accountable to me, as Minister with responsibility, as I would have for any public sector board. As is clearly set out in the commission's report, I will be accountable to the Oireachtas for policing and crime.

A very clear system and structure have been put in place. This has gone through significant engagement with the various authorities. The commission was established for a reason. We needed to restructure. Obviously, there had been faults and challenges within the system. We are trying to put in place a structure and system where there is very clear oversight and where we have absolute confidence in An Garda Síochána. There will be oversight at every step of the way and obviously the Oireachtas has an involvement at all stages.

Legislative Briefings

Martin Kenny


3. Deputy Martin Kenny asked the Minister for Justice if it was her decision to omit section 3 of the Civil Law and Criminal Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2020 from her request for a waiver of pre-legislative scrutiny; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [23037/20]

In my hand I have the briefing note for the pre-legislative scrutiny for the general scheme of the Civil Law and Criminal Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill which was passed just before the recess. That makes no mention of Chapter 3 relating to the admissibility of business documents in civil cases.

Was it the Minister's decision to omit that and to subsequently mislead the House and the Deputies here?

Absolutely nobody had any intention to mislead the Dáil, to omit anything intentionally or to try to sneak anything in with this legislation, as has been suggested before. The Civil Law and Criminal Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2020 was enacted on 6 August and constitutes the Government response to the new challenges posed to our courts and legal systems by the current pandemic. The Act also goes beyond the pandemic, as we outlined at the time, and will make many of our legal processes more efficient and effective in the future.

As the Deputy will be aware, the Act covers a wide range of issues in respect of both our civil and criminal legal systems, including the reform of the law concerning coroners; the introduction of a statutory basis for our courts to conduct remote hearings; the admissibility of business records as evidence in civil proceedings, which the Deputy has referred to; the lodgement of documents with the courts by electronic means, known as e-filing; the lodgement of statements of truth with the courts by electronic means; provision for the wider use of video links between persons in custody and the courts; enhancing and widening the existing provisions on giving evidence through video link; providing for appeals in criminal proceedings to take place via remote hearings; removing the existing requirement to transport prisoners between prisons; and providing for the remote meetings of State bodies. A significant amount of work went into this legislation. It will also make it easier for the Courts Service to alter operating hours.

I assume the Deputy means to refer to Part 3, Chapter 3 of the Act entitled, Business records and other documents in civil proceedings, which was the focus of much debate at the time, rather than section 3 of the Act, which is a standard provision. The position is that there was no decision to exclude Part 3, Chapter 3 of the Act from pre-legislative scrutiny. I am very clear on that. The Deputy is right that the general scheme of the Bill, as approved by Cabinet at its meeting on 13 July, did not include Part 3, Chapter 3. On 14 July, I sought a waiver for the requirement of pre-legislative scrutiny under Standing Order 173 for the Bill, as it was primarily a Covid-19 related measure and needed to be progressed quickly. I sought the waiver, in good faith, on the basis of the general scheme approved by Cabinet.

In bringing this proposal to Cabinet, I indicated the potential for inclusion in the Bill of additional measures to support the holding of criminal and civil trials under Covid-19 restraints and these were subsequently included in the Bill, as approved by Government on 20 July. The legislation we introduced last week went through in a similar fashion and I thank Deputies for their support in that. Changes were made to the initial draft of that Bill when it was eventually published. This is the norm and it often happens. There was no attempt at concealment.

It is not the norm for this to happen; it is totally unusual for legislation to go through without pre-legislative scrutiny. It is not normal and should not be normal. The Minister made the point that nobody attempted to deceive anyone or to sneak anything in. I do not understand how she can say no attempt was made when that is exactly what was done. We were asked to waive pre-legislative scrutiny on the basis of the briefing note we received. That briefing note did not mention Part 3, Chapter 3, as the Minister has conceded. Was it the Minister's decision not to mention the chapter? At the end of the day, we are all on board in trying to ensure everything that can be done to combat Covid-19 is done. We all work together to do so. We have to trust each other and trust that we are all doing the right thing. The problem here is that, when something like this happens, it feeds that small group of negative right-wing people - the people who say we should not wear masks and that all of this is a conspiracy and who spread all of this nonsense across the country wherever they can. The Minister is giving them oxygen by doing this kind of thing. Was it the Minister's decision to do this or was it the Department's decision? Somebody has to be held accountable for misleading the people in this House.

I ask the Minister and the Deputy to co-operate with regard to time so that we can let more Deputies in for questions. Each question is important to the Deputy asking it.

I will say again that there was absolutely no attempt to mislead anybody in the Dáil. When I say this is something which happens regularly, it should be noted that we asked that pre-legislative scrutiny be waived for the previous two Bills I brought forward because of the prevailing circumstances. I appreciate that Deputies allowed us to do so and I thank them for that. Additions were made to both Bills, all of which were necessary at the time. A process was undertaken in putting this legislation together. A medium-term planning group was established by my Department to identify medium-term measures to address the impact of the pandemic on the justice system and on the courts in particular. The group comprised various stakeholders, including the Legal Aid Board, the Insolvency Service of Ireland, the Courts Service, members of the Judiciary and my officials. Part of the group's work was to identify and review measures for inclusion in the Bill. We also engaged with the Law Society in this regard. As the Deputy will know and as I outlined at the time, this particular reform measure has been sought for some time. It is already in place in respect of criminal trials. Our nearest neighbour, which is a similar common law jurisdiction, also has such a measure in place. This was very well understood and had been sought for some time. There was no specific reason for not including it in the earlier process. It was just included at a later date.

The Minister was here when the debate took place. No speaker from the Government or the Opposition spoke in favour of Chapter 3. Everybody said it should be deferred. Everybody in the legal profession to whom I spoke said there was no urgency with this particular issue. Despite this, it was included in the Bill. I want to know who decided to do that because, quite frankly, somebody in the Department of Justice and Equality, under the Minister's watch, had to have decided to do it and to slip it in without her noticing. That person should be sacked because officials are responsible to this House, not just to the Minister. Somebody has to be held accountable when this sort of situation arises. It is totally wrong to break trust at a time when everyone in the country is working together against the coronavirus to ensure our communities and citizens are protected. It is totally outrageous. It was outrageous when it happened over the summer and that has not changed; it is still outrageous. Somebody needs to be held to account for this. If the Minister is saying that it was not her who decided to omit this, she should find out who did and hold that person to account. That has to happen.

I stand over my decision to include this in the Bill. This question was asked of me at the time and I stood over my decision then. The aim of this particular section is to make our legal systems and courts more efficient and accessible. The reason for its introduction is that, in the majority of cases and in the absence of legislative reform, litigants may agree to admit business records without requiring each one to be formally provided in court by a witness to avoid unnecessary costs and delays in court. In a minority of cases, certain litigants may insist on proof of each and every document, notwithstanding that there is no question or doubt as to the authenticity of the documents concerned. This is not in the interests of justice. These cases have posed increasing difficulties for our courts in recent years and highlight the need for statutory intervention.

At the time, it was suggested that I or my Department had been lobbied by various vulture funds. I can categorically say that no vulture fund, bank or anybody else contacted me, my Department or the Office of the Attorney General, which worked with us on this legislation. There were also suggestions regarding a particular case, Promontoria (Aran) Limited v. Burns. What happened in that case is that an application was made to interpret the law as it currently stands with regard to the admissibility of business records in civil cases. Both judgments delivered by the court were clear that this area of the law needed to change. This is why the measure was introduced and the reason I accepted it and passed it through. There was no intention to mislead anybody in the Dáil or any other intention.

Sex Offenders Notification Requirements

Denis Naughten


4. Deputy Denis Naughten asked the Minister for Justice her plans to reform the monitoring of sex offenders; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [23115/20]

In 2009, the then Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform announced that new statutory powers were to be given to An Garda Síochána to more effectively and efficiently monitor released sex offenders. Due to the lack of progress, in 2012 I published the Child Sex Offenders (Information and Monitoring) Bill 2012 to close the gaping loopholes in the monitoring of high-risk sex offenders. This Bill passed Second Stage in the House in 2013. Since I published that Bill to reform the monitoring of sex offenders in 2012, some 800 sex offenders have been released from prison, some of whom may have been stopped from reoffending if the laws had been reformed.

I thank the Deputy for raising this extremely important issue, on which I know he is particularly focused and on which he wants to see progress. I understand the concern which communities can have with regard to the issue of rehabilitation of sex offenders and the protection of public safety and our citizens.

It is important to note that there are already provisions in existing law with regard to the management of sex offenders after they have been released from prison. The Sex Offenders Act 2001 provides that a court can impose conditions on a convicted sex offender as part of his or her post-release supervision. Further, where An Garda Síochána believes that a convicted offender poses a serious risk to the public, an application can be made to the courts for a sex offender order under section 16 of the 2001 Act. Such an order can prohibit the offender from doing anything the court considers necessary to ensure the public is protected from serious harm.

On legislative reform, I can confirm that the general scheme of the Sex Offenders (Amendment) Bill 2018 was developed by my Department following a comprehensive review of current law and administrative practice. The general scheme was approved by Government in June 2018 and it is available on my Department's website.

The Bill is currently with the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel, OPC, for drafting. My officials and that office are working together to finalise the draft with a view to publication of the Bill as soon as possible. Obviously that Bill has been with the OPC for some time now so I have asked for an update on the expected timeline as it is something I would like to progress as soon as possible.

The purpose of the Bill is to enhance current systems for assessment and management of convicted sex offenders and to put those systems on a statutory footing. The drafting process is not yet complete. The provisions of it are well known but I will outline a few. I expect the Bill to include stricter notification requirements, including requiring offenders to notify gardaí of their address upon release from custody, or any subsequent change of address, within three days as opposed to the existing seven days. I also expect provision to allow for fingerprinting and photographing of the offender where necessary to confirm their identity. I expect enhanced supervision of high-risk offenders, including, in limited circumstances, the electronic monitoring of offenders subject to post-release supervision orders.

I thank the Minister. I am glad she mentioned the current law because a convicted sex offender released from Arbour Hill Prison this morning, can toddle down to O'Connell Street and put a letter in the post addressed to the Superintendent's office, An Garda Síochána, Bandon Garda station, Bandon, County Cork informing them they are going to reside at 55, Atlantic View, Malin Head, County Donegal. Once they are in that premises on one day in seven they are in compliance with the current law on sex offenders. The reality is that one could drive a coach and four through the so-called sex offenders register we have. It is nothing but a fig leaf. Any sexual predator who is determined to reoffend can easily do so undetected and still comply with the current law. This was a priority in the previous programme for Government, it is a priority in this programme for Government but when will we see the legislation published?

This is something that has taken some time and, therefore, I assure the Deputy again that I have asked for an update on the timeline of this and I have asked that it be progressed as soon as possible. I will finish outlining some of the areas included in the legislation. We will have enhanced supervision of high-risk offenders including, in limited circumstances, the electronic monitoring of offenders subject to post-release supervision orders, the placing on a legislative footing of assessment teams to assess and manage the risk posed by sex offenders and provisions whereby a court can prohibit a sex offender from working with children which is particularly important. We will have provision for a statutory basis for the necessary disclosure of information relating to a high-risk offender on the sex offenders register. The information about any offender which may be disclosed includes the name, address and threat posed by the offender. There is, of course, a need for balance in these measures and, therefore, it is intended that the disclosure would be made to the minimum number of people necessary to avert a serious risk to safety.

I understand the Deputy's concerns but as I outlined earlier there is legislation in place at the moment, under which if a sex offender is sentenced to a term of imprisonment of two or more years, he or she will be subject to notification requirements for a period of indefinite duration. While the measures may not be strict enough at the moment there are a significant number of measures.

The difficulty is that the balance is entirely in the hands of the perpetrator at present. It is important to note that only one in ten sexual offences is reported and approximately one in 20 results in a conviction. Half of these convictions involve children. Even an effectively operating sex offender monitoring regime, therefore, will not address the total concerns of parents. However, the current system of keeping track of the location of sex offenders is just not working. As a consequence of these very lax monitoring conditions women and children are put at grossly unacceptable risk from those who are determined to reoffend. The Garda are trying to monitor these people with both hands tied behind their backs. Since 2009 there has been a commitment to reform the law in this area and we need a date.

I fully accept the Deputy's concerns and that we need to make progress in the area but while there is legislation there, it does not go far enough. That is why we need this legislation. As such I commit again to try to progress this as quickly as possible. There are obviously other areas as well that relates to sexual offences. The Sexual Offences Act 2017 specifically provides for a review of those provisions after three years. Consequently, earlier this summer, I commissioned an independent expert, Ms Maura Butler, to undertake this review and more generally of the area of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. This is an absolute priority for me as Minister.

We launched the O'Malley report just before the summer recess and we are currently working through a ten-week engagement process with all stakeholders including an Garda Síochána to put in place an implementation plan, particularly focusing on vulnerable witnesses. This does not just include victims of rape, be they men or women, but also vulnerable witnesses, including children and those with disabilities or other challenges. A large volume of work is being done in this area. With specific reference to this legislation, I accept the Deputy's concerns. I share them and want to see this implemented as soon as possible.